Crisis Breeds Both Challenges and Opportunities
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some fundamental shifts on higher education, and its broader impact on the economy will only create more change over time. In the short-term, response to the novel coronavirus has pushed colleges and universities to move all programming into online formats. Over the long term, the crisis is predicted to spur an economic recession that will put people out of work and may well spur a demand boost for higher education. In this interview, Sandra Woodley reflects on how UTPB adjusted to the demands of coronavirus mitigation, shares her thoughts on the impact of a potential recession, and discussed the importance of supporting your students now and those who will be coming due to job loss.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has UT Permian Basin responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?
Sandra Woodley (SW): We’ve worked very closely with the University of Texas network and our faculty, students and staff to make sure we’re ahead of the curve. We’ve worked hard to get all of our faculty and staff working from remotely, which was a pretty big task since many of our faculty members had never taught online courses before. Starting Monday, March 30th, all of our courses shifted to virtual courses. I’m proud of the faculty, who have stepped up and embraced the new technology to be able to deliver for our students.
Of course, there’s uncertainty and fear in this time, so, we’ve tried to remain positive and not dismiss the rational fear people have for their jobs, families and health.
With the gas and oil war waged between Russia and Saudi Arabia, we’ve been hit with a double whammy. Our economy is heavily based on energy production, so many people here have lost their jobs—more than other cities are experiencing job loss. This region is being economically damaged on top of the serious health fears people are experiencing regarding the coronavirus.
Evo: How are you preparing for the impact of a recession and the potential need to scale enrollment capacity to serve greater numbers of learners?
SW: We’re really scaling up, and we hope that the community here will go back to school if they don’t have a job. We’re here to serve them, if they choose to.
It’s hard to predict the response we‘ll get because it’s not a big college community. We have a much lower participation rate here in the Permian Basin. Part of that is because there are times when there are lots of jobs that don’t require education beyond high school. That’ll change in the near future. So we hope it translates into people coming back to college to get ready for the rest of their lives. We have the capacity here to grow significantly. Staff and technology are in place to serve. We’re gearing up marketing campaigns so people understand we have financial aid and housing available to them. We’re hoping to see an increase in enrollment.
The other challenging factor that we can’t predict is how people will respond to online learning. When we look at how long this may last in our community, some of our local researchers at UT Austin and at the MD Anderson Cancer Center don’t believe that the peak is going to hit Midland and Odessa until July or August. As such, we’ll most likely be online for the summer, which doesn’t make a huge difference as most of our summer programming is online anyway. But we may have to keep this going into the fall. However, not everyone is pleased about that. Some students prefer in-class education. However, And if a student doesn’t have a laptop or Internet at home, we’ve solved that for them by shipping laptops and hotspots. We’re solving every single problem for the students who don’t have access to the necessary technology.
Unfortunately, though, it’s still too soon to predict what the response of the residents here will be to these very challenging times.
Evo: As faculty and staff adapt to a remote learning environment, how are you ensuring what role continuing online ed leaders play in helping the university shift to an online mode of teaching and learning?
SW: Fortunately, about 40% of our courses are already online. We had a pretty good infrastructure in place for that. But there’s nothing like a good crisis to pull everyone in the same direction.
There’s not been one grumble about it because all of our faculty care about our students, and they want our students to be successful. Things usually don’t move this fast in academia, but we’re moving forward. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that. We’re being forced to become much more sophisticated in our technology. With my own staff, we’re doing all of our meetings on the Microsoft Teams platform. It’s pretty awesome. Every week we do town hall meetings with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, which allows them to get answers in real time.
Even after the crisis, when we’re back to face-to-face, we’ll continue to leverage these technological tools to our advantage. Our faculty will start to understand that they can use that same technology to create hybrid classes, incorporating videos and simulations. There’s a lot of good that will come from our necessary crush to technology at this time. We just have to be able to adapt and innovate.
Evo: What are a few of the lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience so far?
SW: It’s hard to describe how many decisions you have to make in a short period of time. That’s the nature of a crisis. There are so many things that are unknown, and you have to make sure you make the best decision for your university in every single area. We’ve worked very hard to support our students. But we had hundreds of students who lived in our dorms and on-campus apartments, so we made the decision to send everyone home except for those who genuinely had no other choice. International students, for example, couldn’t go back and we have some students that don’t have a safe home to go back to.
We had to be very strict about moving students home, and it was very disappointing for them, which was excruciating for my staff to see. But we live in an area where there isn’t a lot of hospital capacity. When we get to the peak here and cases increase, we didn’t want to be in a position in which we couldn’t keep our students safe. It was in their best interest to go home. Those are some of the challenging things that we had to be able to do.
As a team, we’re laser focused on making sure we can continue our mission and support each other–to do the right thing for the community. We canceled all of our events very early on to make sure this area has its best chance at flattening the curve.
Evo: What do you think the future is going to look like for higher education as we adapt to this new normal and shift into a recession environment?
SW: The universities and community colleges are on the front lines of making sure people who’ve lost their jobs are able to retool and get back to work as quickly as possible. Those people have an opportunity to find their next career—one that is hopefully a little bit more recession-proof. We want to be there to support them.
The excitement around using technology in an innovative way and everyone’s ability to adapt to it will be transformative. Some of our faculty have already embraced that. This is not a correspondence course that we’re talking about. It’s thinking about how we can be sophisticated in our teaching and learning to make it easier for students to get the knowledge they need to be successful. Universities will play a really important role in making sure that we can come out of this recession as prepared as possible for the people in our communities.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 26, 2020.